Mandarin tones are one of the classic “difficult parts” of the language. Despite that, textbooks and teachers often do a bad job of teaching them. A big part of this is that the focus is too often on teaching tones, rather than teaching how to learn tones.

Note that this is in no way intended to be a bash of teachers, textbooks or anything else. A lot of teachers do a very good job of teaching Chinese, and more importantly teaching students how to learn Chinese.

The point of this article is to highlight some common obstacles to learning Mandarin tones effectively. It’s about misconceptions that can hold you back, and how to replace them with better approaches.

“You learn tones in the beginning, then move on”

Most courses recognise that pronunciation is pretty essential to learning a language well, and begin with a pronunciation section. This is good, but it has an unfortunate side effect. Because tones are covered in this initial period of getting started with pronunciation, they’re often left to languish there.

What happens is that students learn enough about tones to know the basics and have a vague idea of what they should be doing. But there’s an urge to get on with learning “real stuff”, and tones quickly disappear from the picture. Another factor is the awkwardness of constantly correcting students’ tones.

What really needs to happen is for there to be constant, unrelenting focus on tones any time students are with the teacher. If you’re studying on your own, you need to keep up this pressure on yourself using recordings and finding native speakers to help you.

Tones need to be practised and perfected. Tones need to be memorised for every word. But more importantly, tone mistakes need to be spotted and corrected, with NO MERCY. And this needs to continue FOREVER.

This sounds extreme, but when you realise that bad tones are the norm even for people who’ve been learning Chinese for years, it becomes apparent that something different needs to be done.

It is totally possible to get very good, even flawless, Mandarin pronunciation, including correct tones, but it needs real dedication and a willingness to put in the long-term grind to get it right. It won’t be easy, but you can do it.

“The five tones sound like this: “

The next problematic approach to Mandarin tones is tied in with the “they’re for beginners” problem above. It’s very common for teachers and Chinese learning resources to focus on the tones in isolation and describe how each one sounds.

You do need to know how each tone sounds on its own, but it’s way less important than most people think. Learning them in isolation won’t work long-term. More detail on that in a second.

Firstly, there are the tone sandhi / tone change rules”). These are a small set of rules that cover how Mandarin tones change based on what other tones are around them. These would be a bit of a nightmare to acquire if you focused on how each tone sounds on its own according to your textbook or teacher.

Most courses do at least cover tone change rules and make students aware of them. But quite often this boils down to an explanation and a little bit of practice. Tone sandhi provide a massive hint at how you should be learning tones, but it’s often not enough to nudge structured courses in the right direction.

Mandarin tones also differ significantly according to enunciation, emotion and people’s differing pronunciation and way of speaking. They can sound different from one sentence to the next.

I’m not saying all this to put you off the task and make it seem impossible. I know it’s already daunting enough in the early stages. But I wish I’d known early on that focusing on each individual tone just isn’t that helpful beyond the first hour of learning Chinese.

That brings me to the next lie.

“You learn tones by building up”

The approach I described above can be described as a ‘bottom up’ approach, or a Lego approach. You try to isolate each component and practice them separately. This approach is definitely an important part of learning Chinese. But a lot of people focus exclusively on this approach when learning languages, and ignore the other direction.

Top-down learning is at least as important as bottom-up learning. With top-down learning, you go straight for the jugular and attempt to perform the whole thing that you want to be able to do.

You’ll fuck it up at first, of course, but the benefit comes from giving your brain the chance to learn all of the extra processes that go into performing the activity.

When it comes to tones, I think that a top-down approach is massively more effective than a bottom-up one. Trying to pronounce words correctly is much more effective than isolating individual syllables. The Sinosplice tone pair drills are a good resource for getting started on that.

You should also go beyond words, though, and try to imitate entire sentences. This will be hard in the beginning, but keep going. It’s fine if you don’t even understand the sentence you’re saying. Your goal here is to get used to producing the sounds and making them as close as possible to a native speaker.

A big give-away that the top-down approach is effective is that it’s so bloody hard in the beginning. It’s really painful to learn things top-down at first. But when it comes to learning things long-term, I believe there’s some truth in the saying ‘no pain no gain’.

My point in this section is not to say that you should run before you can walk. You do of course need some basic grounding and an idea of how to distinguish individual tones. But it’s important to dive into the more badass approaches as soon as possible, and before you feel “ready”. (Hint: you’re never “ready” when learning a language).

“Third tone is falling rising”

This is an oddly specific section amidst some loftier learning goals, but it’s a necessary one. When you’re told that third tone is “falling rising” - that it dips down then back up - that’s basically bullshit.

Mandarin’s third tone does do that when pronounced in isolation, but as we saw above, tones rarely exist in isolation. The vast majority of the time, the third tone does not do its jolly dip across a valley. It’s actually better described as “low tone”: flat and low across a plain.

This makes it fit in better with the other tones, as shown in the second diagram in this post. You’ve got the high and level first tone, and the low and level third tone to complement each other. And the rising second tone and falling fourth tone also make a matching set.

You should also read Olle Linge’s post on learning the third tone. Read all of his stuff in general, in fact.

“Learning tones is all about output”

As with the point about learning by building up, this one is a lie of omission. Learning by building up is important, but it’s not the whole story. Similarly, output is absolutely freaking essential to learning a language, but it’s not the only thing you need a lot.

This is especially true when it comes to tones. You do need to be practising your pronunciation like your life depends on it (maybe it will! 嘿嘿), but don’t forget that input is also a 100% required part of your Chinese learning diet.

Think of output as healthy exercise and input as a healthy diet; you need both.

Getting loads of input is important because your brain needs to know what it’s actually trying to achieve. Babies and little kids do a whole lotta listening before they begin to speak, and they still sound like idiots. Get as much listening as possible, at all times.

“Teachers expect students to produce the tones before they can even hear the difference between them (especially in combinations).”
— Laowai Chinese

The point of that quote isn’t that you need to spend ages isolating the tones (please don’t do that), but that getting loads of listening is very important for getting your tones right.

Bonus! Implicit lies about Mandarin tones

Whilst I don’t think any teachers or textbooks explicitly state the misconceptions as described above, many certainly seem to lead learners on to those conclusions. In this section, I want to mention a few ideas that often form an unhelpful backdrop to learning Mandarin tones, even if they’re never touched on directly.

(Other native speakers will understand your tones like I do)

This is a HUGE problem in language learning, especially in Chinese for Europeans. Teachers and other people around the learner get used not just to their particular way of speaking, but to the way learners speak in general. This means that they often understand things the learner says which other native speakers would not.

The result of this is obvious. Learners end up with an inaccurate sense of their ability to communicate with native speakers. “The teacher / my friends / other students always understand me, so I must be getting it right.”

It sounds harsh, but the sooner you recognise this reality, the sooner you can avoid falling into this trap.

This attitude often ends up tying in with prejudice against “non-standard” speakers and so on - some learners of Mandarin like to blame native speakers for not understanding them, rather than looking at their own language abilities.

(Tones are a second-class citizen in pronunciation)

For various reasons, a lot of Chinese learning materials pass off the idea that tones are not as important as vowels and consonants, or are something of a separate issue.

If you ever see something related to learning Chinese giving pinyin without the tones, then something is seriously wrong with that resource.

A lot of the time, the tone is actually more important than the vowel or consonant in a given syllable. If you listen to non-standard speakers of Mandarin, this quickly becomes apparent.

A common example is the pronunciation of 十 and 四. In non-standard Mandarin, these are often best distinguished by tone rather than the consonant sound. In other words, if you say “sí ge” (second tone), most native speakers will hear that as 十个 and not 四个. It’s easy to assume the opposite if you’re used to focusing on the vowels and consonants such as in a European language.

(There is only one kind of tone mistake)

Finally, one frustrating issue for learners is a lack of recognition that there are several types of tone mistakes. Here’s a quick list of causes off the top of my head:

Mangling the pronunciation of a tone, and you’re not really clear what it should have been anyway.
Knowing what the tone is (e.g. 1,2,3,4) but pronouncing it wrong because you don’t know how.
Knowing what the tone is and how to pronounce it, but mangling it because of emotion or you want to sneeze or something.
Knowing how to pronounce a tone, but believing that the tone for this syllable was a different one and saying that one instead.
There are probably more variations (edit: just saw this from Sinosplice). These are very different types of mistakes, so it’s quite a frustrating experience for a learner to have their mistake corrected in the wrong way (a mistaken correction, if you will).

If you know how to pronounce the tones, but thought a word had a different tone, it feels patronising to be told how to pronounce the right one. On the other hand, if you’re not very good at pronouncing tones yet, it’s not helpful to be told “that should be third tone”.

There are two things that need to be done to tackle this:

“Leave your ego at the door”. This was on the door of our 9th grade drama classroom, and it’s always stuck with me. It applies very well to learning languages. Your ego is not helpful as a learner.
Politely discuss this issue with your teacher. They do want to help you learn after all! Their experience of learning Chinese was probably extremely different to yours, so it’s understandable they do some things in a less than ideal way.
Over to you! Do you think it’s true that these misconceptions are often promoted in Mandarin learning? Do you think I’m totally wrong?